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The Importance of Incremental Credentialing: State Policy Organization View

Incremental credentialing stood out amid the pandemic as an affordable and flexible option for non-traditional, especially marginalized, students to upskill or reskill quickly. Incremental credentials are an essential part of creating equitable education for all.

The national Credential As You Go initiative launched on May 12th at the kick-off meeting of the new Advisory Board. Holly Zanville moderated the opening panel, which was represented by key groups in the learn-and-work ecosystem: a state higher education system, an employer, a state policy organization, and philanthropy.  Panelists addressed the same question: Why is incremental credentialing important? In a four-part series at The Evolllution, we’ll hear from our panelists in their own words (abridged from their presentations). The following are Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield’s remarks on the subject.

If we want to build an inclusive economy, in which all businesses and workers–particularly people of color─flourish, education leaders and policymakers must work together to expand access to and attainment of degrees and quality credentials along the way. States are recognizing that incremental credentials, such as certificates and industry-awarded certifications, are a key component of economic development, helping workers to obtain better jobs and connecting them to further postsecondary education and training opportunities. The importance of incremental credentials to helping people reskill to participate in economic recovery has been underscored over the past year. It’s an option for people to quickly get retrained and into the labor market with a richer skill set.

Why do incremental credentials matter? They provide a crucial opportunity for workers to upskill quickly, which is incredibly relevant with the COVID-19 pandemic. Incremental credentials are easier for students to complete, which gets them back into the labor force faster than with a degree. They’re a particularly important entry point for low-income adults and those with only a high school diploma who are stuck in low-wage jobs. They can serve as an essential entryway for adults and other low-income workers who do not have an immediate attachment to postsecondary education. If developed thoughtfully, like within a career pathway that articulates to credit, they can serve as steppingstones to higher levels of postsecondary education.

We also know that quality incremental credentials can lead to increased earnings and yield a significant return on investment, especially when aligned with the needs of local and regional employers. A postsecondary certificate holder earns roughly 30% more than individuals with a high school diploma. They’re also nimble, faster to develop, more responsive to the labor market, and tend to be well aligned with employer and occupational demands. This is one of the reasons why those of us in state policy work like them. We’re all familiar with the Strada research, which is consistent with polling conducted by National Skills Coalition. There is increasing demand from adult learners for postsecondary options that give them rapid opportunities to upskill and apply their knowledge in the workforce. Surveys consistently show that adults see non-degree credentials versus other education and training options as providing better value, a better fit for personal needs, with more benefit to their job and career. 

Whether we think we could do better by these learners by directing them to longer-term options is in many ways moot. The fundamental reality is that we’re likely to see an increase in demand for incremental credentialing in the immediate term, especially if trends during the Great Recession are any indication, so we should focus on policies and institutional practices that provide quality pathways upward for all.

There are a few things to avoid when it comes to incremental credentials Some credentials are of low quality and only lead to low-paying jobs. It’s also important to note that the wage gains vary by sector and that there are inequitable outcomes by race. The reality is that incremental credentials have been “terminal education” for a lot of folks. We would be negligent to not admit that students of color have been tracked into particular credential pathways that do not pay off as significantly as a two- or four-year degrees. Black and Latinx people are more likely to report certificates as their highest level of education. And what little research has been conducted on stacking incremental credentials shows adults of color are less likely to stack than white and younger students.  We have a moral and economic imperative to dismantle structural racism and sexism within workforce education and training systems that hold back both workers and our economy. The notion of an incremental credentialing system that works for all will help achieve that goal.

We also need to think about quality assurance with incremental credentials. We need a quality assurance framework to ensure credentials, and particularly, non-degree credentials offer relevant learning, align competencies with employer needs, lead to jobs that pay good wages, and stack (by connecting to more educational opportunities and being embedded into longer pathways).  We must have a framework that illustrates that incremental credentials are not islands to themselves but part of a larger ecosystem. If that ecosystem flourishes–through a robust quality assurance system, thoughtful state and federal policies, and institutional practices that ensure quality and support students, then the credentials can fulfill their potential and connect more people to better educational and employment pathways. If not, we will continue to see segregated education opportunities that exclude people of color and women from lucrative opportunities and continue to drive economic inequality. We need to create an environment within our institutions and our state and federal policies to ensure that those who are receiving incremental credentials have pathways open to them that lead to better employment and the option of additional education and training along the way.  

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight policies that help fulfill the promise of incremental credentials. We need to expand the use of prior learning assessments, build pathways from non-credit to credit education, align training content with employer demands, develop training that integrates basic skills with occupational content, and offer financial aid and non-tuition supports that ensure affordability and provide an incentive for adults to return to their pathway after achieving an initial credential or two. 

We’re on the cusp of great work here.

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